By Tom D. Lynch, CSI
I bet you’re thinking, “This ought to be good. What does this guy know that I haven’t already tried? Getting architects and owners to agree to pay for floor-prep work is about as easy as it is to get a concrete contractor to provide a perfectly flat and level floor in the first place.” And the answer to this question could very well be “You just read it.” He who pours the concrete that does not meet the specs should fix the floor so that it does meet the specs or pay someone else – like you – to fix it for him. Sound simple? It’s not.
Part one: the problem
The problem is getting the concrete guy to meet whose specs; his Division 3 specs or our Division 9 specs? The Division 9 specs most times spell out precise finish floor requirements as if it were the tile installer’s responsibility even though he did not pour the concrete. The Division 3 specs in general do not get specific when it comes to finish floor requirements. The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) gives very definite requirements for substrate tolerances but does not spell out whose responsibility it is to provide them. We therefore have a dilemma.
A couple years ago the American Society of Concrete Contractors (ASCC) in conjunction with the Flooring Contractors Association (FCCA) and the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) issued a joint statement titled the “ASCC Position Statement #6” to address this issue. Without going into great detail about the differences between the two specs, the conclusion of the ASCC and the NWFA was as follows:
“….suggest that the owner provide a bid allowance, established by the A/E and based on the floor covering requirements, for any necessary grinding and patching to close the gap between Division 3 tolerances and Division 9 tolerances.”
This sounded good to everyone except the owners who unfortunately have to foot the bill. Where is the control over quality with this plan? There is none, and that is the flaw with this position. Issuing blank checks in the construction industry just doesn’t work.
There is more to this issue than meets the eye, and must be considered. The floor covering industry is changing, and changing fast. With the ever-increasing demand for large-bodied tiles plus the advent of gauged porcelain slabs and panels, the demands for flat and level floors has increased dramatically. Add to this the ever-growing demand for luxury vinyl tiles (LVT) that also demand extremely flat and level floors, and it is plain to see that nearly every type of floor covering other than carpet requires a minimum of 1/8” in 10’ flatness levels.
Case in point
Progress is not being made along these fronts and it is not fair to anyone involved. Let me give you an example: In the spring of last year I received a frantic phone call from a good tile contractor friend of mine in Houston, Texas. He had a large ceramic and resilient tile project in progress for one of the largest building contractors in the country and was up against the wall with a substrate issue that was going nowhere toward resolution. The concrete floors were so bad that his “more than fair” estimate to repair them came to well over $100,000 and no one would listen to him. For some reason, the owner of the project was protecting the concrete contractor and would not consider paying out any money to resolve the issue.
After a day of taking laser readings and laying out a complete diagram of the floor variations we were able to convince the GC that the floors were in fact, that bad. It was obviously not my friend’s fault, but the owner still would not relent. So, I advised my client to offer to sell all the tile materials that were already on site to the owner and let him find someone else to perform the install. My reasoning was that my client – as a professional flooring contractor – could not in good conscience knowingly perform an inferior installation. Unless he was allowed to repair the floors and get paid to do it, he was willing to walk. The GC, by the way, respected him greatly for taking the position that he did, and the owner finally relented.
Part two: the solution
This is not simply a concrete slab issue nor only a ceramic tile issue, but rather an issue involving both trades that must be worked out together in such a manner as to be acceptable to architects and fair to owners. I propose a new specification section: 09300.5 Concrete Floor Prep. The Division 3 specification will also need some revisions made to it. The system would be as follows:
The concrete slab shall be poured 1/2” below the desired finish floor height. No fine finished trowel surface will be required. Basically a bull float and broom finish is all that is needed. This will save money in two ways. First, 1/2” less material will be used and secondly there will be no fine finish troweling labor required.
This is where section 09300.5 kicks in. Just prior to beginning the tile installation, the tile contractor shall pour a 1/2” thick layer of cementitious self-leveler product over the entire floor bringing it up to the finished floor elevation that is required. Any crowns, curls, humps, or other defects in the flatness of the concrete will be rectified during this process ensuring that a perfectly flat and level floor will be provided.
The specified floor covering product can then be installed in accordance with the appropriate specifications. The cost of installing the finished floor product should also be somewhat lower than normal considering that there will be no floor-prep work needed as it has already been provided for in #2 above.
There is no doubt that the total cost of this system will be slightly higher because self-levelers cost more to install than poured concrete, but that cost will be known up front on bid day. And let’s face it, costs of anything on bid day are usually much lower than add-on costs for extras later on.
Owners should also take into consideration that pouring large concrete slabs to a finished floor tolerance of 1/8” in ten feet is virtually impossible in the first place. There are simply too many variables during the curing and drying process to accomplish such perfection. Additional costs are a reality these days and this system will establish that total cost without confusion or cost over runs after the project is bid.
Specifications for the self-leveler product need not be excessive. A good quality self-leveler will produce a 28-day compressive strength of 4,000 psi. Depth per application ranges from 1” to 2” per pour. A primer is always recommended by each manufacturer.
I suggest that collaboration between the TCAA, the ASCC, and the NTCA will be needed to draft new language and get it distributed to the architectural community in order to get these important changes made. In my opinion this will be the total solution to the problem of how to get paid for performing floor-prep work. In the meantime the answer to that question is, “It can be difficult.”
Tom Lynch is a 55-year veteran of the tile industry and one of the NTCA’s initial inductees to the “Recognized Industry Consultants” group. He can be reached at (336) 877-6951 or [email protected] or www.tomlynchconsultant.com.